Rodgers & Hammerstein: Oklahoma! Nathaniel Hackmann, Sierra Boggess, Rodney Earl Clark, Jamie Parker. Sinfonia of London/John Wilson, conductor. CHANDOS CHSA 5322 (2).
DIGITAL REVIEW — My first memories of Oklahoma! were listening to my father play excerpts from it on the piano. He was a civil engineer by profession, a good amateur pianist, and a huge fan of Broadway musicals.
Our house was always filled with the sound of music, usually from Dad playing the latest shows. I came to love them, too, especially Oklahoma! And when Chandos announced that it was issuing the “world premiere complete recording,” I couldn’t wait to hear it. In fact, it is very, very good. But it could have been better.
Oklahoma! opened in New York in the darkest days of World War II and ran for 2,212 performances. There have been numerous revivals since then. The first recording was made later in 1943, the year the show opened, with the original cast and orchestra. Alfred Drake was Curly and Joan Roberts was Laurey. That recording is still available on Decca. Many readers will have been introduced to Oklahoma! by the 1955 film starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. And the popularity of Oklahoma! and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals that came after shows no sign of letting up. According to historian Todd S. Purdum, “on a single spring evening in 2014 alone there were 11 productions of Carousel, 17 of The King and I, 26 of South Pacific, 64 of Oklahoma!, and 106 of The Sound of Music.”
Among the Oklahoma! productions I have enjoyed over the years was a splendid outing at Canada’s Stratford Festival in 2007 starring Dan Chameroy. But best of all was a full-scale production at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in 2017 with Nathaniel Hackmann as Curly and John Wilson conducting (see video below). This performance had everything: a fine cast, wonderful dancing, and an all-star orchestra led by a man who is a specialist in this repertoire.
Oklahoma! is often erroneously cited as the first “book musical” — that is, a show that tells a story with characters who sing and dance. In the early days of Broadway musicals, the shows were often little more than a potpourri of songs, dances, and comedy bits, with lots of scantily-clad girls. Strictly speaking, the honor should go to 1927’s Show Boat, based on the book of the same name by Edna Ferber, with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Not coincidentally, this same Hammerstein wrote the book and lyrics for Oklahoma! with Richard Rodgers of Rodgers-and-Hart fame writing the music. Rodgers and Hammerstein went on to write one hit book musical after another, many of them incorporating dark, controversial elements including murder, racism, mixed marriages, and culture clashes.
Oklahoma! is based on the 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, whose characters sang folk songs, by Lynn Riggs. It is set in 1906 in Indian Territory in what was soon to become the state of Oklahoma. The cowboy Curly McLain is courting the farm girl Laurey Williams. But there is another suitor, a lonely and mentally unstable farmhand, Jud Fry. In the end, Curly wins out, but on the very day of the wedding, a drunken Jud bursts in and instigates a fight with Curly. In the fight, Jud falls on his own knife and dies. Curly is summarily brought to trial and acquitted.
While Rodgers’ music and Hammerstein’s lyrics are consistently excellent and often memorable, much of the story is told in dialogue; Oklahoma! is very much a play with music — and dance. That is why the claim on the cover of this new Chandos recording, “world premiere complete recording,” is not only incorrect but misleading. There is little or no dialogue here. The CD contains all the music written for the show. In conductor Wilson’s words, it is the first recording in which “every note is played and where they are played as originally written.” But without the dialogue, we have only the most superficial sense of what the story is about. Jud Fry scarcely exists, and the conflict between Curly and Jud is only hinted at. The climactic fight scene between Curly and Jud isn’t included in this “world premiere complete recording.” In fact, Jud isn’t heard at all in this new release after his Act I soliloquy, “Lonely Room.” Nor do the scraps of music used for scene changes and continuity, which we are apparently hearing for the first time, add anything to comprehension of the story.
Surely it would have been a better idea to release a DVD of the aforementioned BBC Proms production. This was truly a complete performance of the show, with Wilson presiding. It was largely a different cast but a very good one, and was headed by the same fine singer, Hackmann, as Curly. (He currently plays Biff in the Broadway production of Back to the Future: The Musical.) Accompaniment for the Proms concert was provided by the John Wilson Orchestra, an all-star ensemble comprised of some of London’s best musicians. On the new Chandos audio recording, Wilson leads the Sinfonia of London, which is virtually the same orchestra. In 2018, Wilson revived the all-but-defunct Sinfonia to do the job the John Wilson Orchestra had done before. And the Sinfonia too is an all-star entity.
The performances in this new audio recording are excellent. From the opening bars of the Overture, we know we are in for a great time. Tempos are brisk, precision is paramount, phrasing is expressive, and the recorded quality is ideal. Then comes Hackmann singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” with a big, open sound. And as everyone knows by now, that song is followed by one unforgettable tune after another. Hackmann is again in top form in “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” as he tries to persuade Laurey to accompany him to the box social. Sierra Boggess as Laurey really sings the part, unlike some others who have undertaken the role, and she projects the personality of an attractive but feisty young girl, just what one wants for Laurey. The other part of the triangle, Jud Fry, is sung by Rodney Earl Clarke with lots of voice, too. And he is appropriately menacing and pitiful in “Lonely Room.” (Rod Steiger was Jud in the movie version, and pretty frightening he was. But he didn’t get to sing “Lonely Room.” Probably just as well, since he wasn’t much of a singer.)
It is well known that most Broadway composers write the music and leave the orchestration to somebody else, usually due to time constraints. In the case of Oklahoma!, that somebody else was Robert Russell Bennett, one of the best orchestrators in the business. The Oklahoma! “sound” probably owes as much to Bennett as it does to Rodgers. And it seems likely that it was Bennett who composed the music for the nearly 14-minute “Dream Ballet” using Rodgers’ tunes.
Wilson is very much a “historically informed” conductor when it comes to musicals. He wants to do them in the original authentic version. As he puts it, “It’s no different to, say, John Eliot Gardiner’s approach to period performance.” In the case of Oklahoma!, he credits Bruce Pomahac with going back to the original manuscripts and orchestral parts and preserving them. Wilson is also insistent on using the exact number of musicians (29) that were in the pit in 1943 and, where possible, using instruments that would have been played in the 1940s.
Wilson may be fighting a losing battle in opting for a “period” performance of Oklahoma! There are those who find the original Oklahoma! full of good songs but dated and corny, and badly in need of a facelift. In 2018, Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein put together a more contemporary version and were hugely rewarded for their efforts. Among the changes was a new orchestration that tossed Bennett’s orchestra aside and substituted a seven-piece band with no strings. Agnes de Mille’s original choreography went by the boards, too. As one reviewer, Mert Dilek, put it, “Forget the butter-churner and the lasso. This Oklahoma! has no need of them.” The new version of Oklahoma! packed them in on Broadway, won a clutch of Tony awards, and went on to more success in London’s West End.
But I’m with John Wilson. I want to see and hear the original version just as Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote it. Oklahoma! may show its age and reflect the period in which it was written, but so do the great works of Bach and Mozart. And we love them just the way they are. More power to Wilson for trying to bring us the genuine Oklahoma!